WASHINGTON — The Justice Department sought the email records of three Washington Post reporters the day before William P. Barr stepped down as attorney general in a last-ditch effort to identify who had told the newspaper about conversations between Trump campaign officials and the Russian ambassador, newly unsealed court documents show.
The Dec. 22 request, one of Mr. Barr’s last acts in office, was part of a major escalation by the Trump administration during its final weeks in power of a yearslong campaign to crack down on leaks of classified information to the news media. The Trump Justice Department also sought New York Times reporters’ records in that period.
The Biden Justice Department had disclosed the effort — which also included seizing the reporters’ phone records — last month, leading to the unsealing of the Post docket. The files shed new light on what happened, including listing the day prosecutors applied for the email records order and identifying three Post articles that were the subject of a leak investigation.
Those articles, identified only by their dates of publication, apparently included one in May 2017 that reported that President Donald J. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had discussed with Russia’s ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, the possibility of using Russian diplomatic facilities as a communication back channel during the transition.
They also included a June 2017 article about the Obama administration’s struggles to deal with Russian election interference the previous year, and a July 2017 article reporting that Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, had discussed campaign issues with Mr. Kislyak when Mr. Sessions was a senator and a Trump campaign surrogate the previous year.
All three articles were written by Adam Entous, Greg Miller and Ellen Nakashima, the reporters whose communications records investigators were seeking to secretly seize. While the Justice Department has disclosed that it did obtain their phone logs — which do not require court orders — it never succeeded in obtaining their email logs.
The 12-page application to the court seeking the email records of the three reporters also indicates that the Justice Department believed that someone in Congress might have shared the details about Mr. Kislyak’s conversations with the press.
The government said Congress requested access to highly classified information in 2017 as part of a congressional inquiry. The Post on two occasions subsequently published “information that was contained within the classified materials that had been made available to select congressional personnel,” the court document said.
The Times has previously reported that investigators focused on Michael Bahar, then a staff member on the House Intelligence Committee, but never found evidence proving their suspicions.
The new information underscores how aggressively the Trump Justice Department pursued years-old leaks to the news media. Mr. Trump had pushed top officials to make leak investigations a top priority.
Since the disclosure of the seizures and attempted seizures of communications records of reporters — including at The Times, The Post and CNN — President Biden has declared that he will no longer let the Justice Department use subpoenas and court orders to obtain such data in hunts for confidential sources. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland is expected to send a memo this week to all federal prosecutors’ offices formally directing such a ban.
The Justice Department’s inspector general is looking into leak investigations that involved efforts to obtain the records of reporters and members of Congress and their staff.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
A magistrate judge this month unsealed most of the docket from a separate leak investigation in which prosecutors sought from Google the email logs of four Times reporters from 2017. A judge approved that order on Jan. 5, but as in the Post investigation, prosecutors never obtained the email data.
Files show that Google did not respond to the initial court order. Prosecutors went back to the company in early February — after Mr. Biden took office — but Google said it would not turn over the data unless it were permitted to tell The Times, in accordance with a contract.
The Justice Department allowed the company to tell several executives at the newspaper, but on the condition that they be under gag order not to tell anyone else. The department eventually dropped that effort and asked a judge to lift the gag order without obtaining any files.
The Biden Justice Department, however, objected to making public the Trump Justice Department’s initial application for the Times reporters’ emails. That application would show what prosecutors told a magistrate judge they were looking for — and why it was necessary for the inquiry, apparently one whose existence had already been reported, to remain secret, justifying gag orders. Whether that will become public remains subject to future litigation.
An order by a magistrate judge, Zia M. Faruqui, directing that the Washington Post-related files be unsealed shows that the Biden Justice Department initially objected to unsealing the application in that matter, too. But Judge Faruqui pressed for its disclosure, noting that the public generally has a right to see such materials from closed investigations.
In doing so, the judge colorfully invoked iconic scenes from two Harrison Ford blockbusters.
“A sealed matter is not generally, as the government persists in imagining, ‘nailed into a nondescript crate, stored deep in a sprawling, uncataloged warehouse,’” the judge wrote, quoting another court opinion that cited the final scene of the 1981 movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
“Rather, it is merely frozen in carbonite, awaiting its eventual thawing,” Judge Faruqui added, citing the 1980 movie “The Empire Strikes Back.”